(Images via Google Images)
Meet Meeta–the twenty-something genius, who eats toothpaste, talks too fast and is on a mission to rob her father of his hard-earned money, that, too, right when her sister is getting ready for her wedding vows. Or Rani–the Rajouri Garden girl who gets jilted by her London-returned fiance, but decides to go for her planned honeymoon to Paris anyway, even be it on her own. Or Bobby–the detective from the bustling streets of old Hyderabad, who is bent on following her dream even at the cost of facing the wrath of her dispproving conservative father. Or Sonali–the chirpy and enterprising girl who sells broadband internet connections and takes on the corporate giant that threatens to destroy her business on her own. Or Gullu–the ambitious shoe sales girl who tired of the taunts thrown at her father from greedy dowry-seeking families of prospective grooms decides to hit back at them in the same currency. By now we know that these are a few of the meaty roles that the women of tinseltown got to portray on screen this year. This list can go on, and that in itself is good enough a reason why 2014 can be considered a landmark year in Indian cinema, especially in Bollywood.
In an industry where everything right from the title of the film to how many minutes a co-actor gets to be on screen infamously revolves around the whims and fancies of the male star or the “hero”, the fact that female characters are realistically portrayed and written in depth comes as good news. Never in the recent past have so many films that rode completely on the woman’s shoulder have made it to Indian screens. Sure, most of them may not have made the kind of money ones that star their male counterparts have. Nonetheless, a wave of change is here and how!
The year began with a bang with Abhishek Chaubey’s Madhuri Dixit-starrer Dedh Ishqiya which had Dixit and her co-star Huma Qureshi reducing the men to “a rather notoriously named sulphur compound”–chutiyum sulphate–much like Vidya Balan did in the highly acclaimed prequel Ishqiya. Vinil Mathew’s Hasee Toh Phasee, with its rather eccentric female lead Meeta (played by Parineeti Chopra), too, turned out to be a gamechanger. This was followed by Imtiaz Ali’s Highway, a coming-of-age drama with a rich Delhi girl, Veera, at its centre, who holds within her a disturbing secret from her past and finds solace in the company of her kidnappers. The very next week came both Vikas Bahl’s Kangna Ranaut-starrer Queen and debutant Soumik Sen’s crime-action drama set in rural India Gulaab Gang. The latter saw two of the most celebrated heroines of the last generation–Dixit and Juhi Chawla–in a completely new light. The dancing diva put on her action shoes and Chawla, forever the funny girl, had us at hello with her mischievious smirk playing the cunning politician, the film’s antagonist. Although titled after its protagonist Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet left us wondering how much of the film was in fact about him. Gazala, Haider’s mother, was without doubt the most layered and most beautifully written character of the year, and thanks to Tabu’s exemplary performance, shone brighter than the men in the film.
The rest of the year was studded with smaller gems that did its women justice like Revolver Rani, Bobby Jasoos, Two States, Sonali Cable, Daawat-E-Ishq, Khoobsurat, Finding Fanny and some biggies like Mardaani and Mary Kom. 2014 also saw the success of two very powerful documentaries–Nishtha Jain’s Gulaabi Gang and Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her–that spoke about the struggles of women around the country.
With films like Queen, Mardaani and Mary Kom having done well, it has driven home the point that there exists an audience who are willing to part with their money to watch stories revolving around women. “For women in Bollywood, it has always been two steps forward, one step back,” says film critic and author Anupama Chopra. “Like The Dirty Picture and Kahaani did well, but a Heroine didn’t.” However, this trend is more like a slow wave building up and doesn’t look like one that will peter out, she says.
Not just in Bollywood, this trend seems to be catching up in the regional industries, too. Known for its content-driven films, the Malayalam industry welcomed actor Manju Warrier after a gap of 14 years in the dramedy How Old Are You?. The film, which comments on how women give up on their dreams after marriage and motherhood, went on to become one of the top grossers of the year and its rights have already been sold to be remade in Tamil and Hindi. The biggest hit from Kerala this year, Bangalore Days, too, had a differently-abled, yet perfectly happy and independent woman as one of its main characters.
It rained remakes in the Tamil and Telegu industries with Nayanthara stepping into Balan’s shoes in Nee Enge En Anbe, a remake of Kahaani, made simultaneously in Telugu as Anamika. While Nitya Menen played the sexually-assaulted nurse in Malini 22 Palayamkottai, a remake of the Malayalam film 22 Female Kottayam, Sneha shone bright as the dubbing artist who falls in love late in her life in Un Samayal Araiyil (Ulavacharu Biriyani in Telugu), a remake of Aashiq Abu’s Malayalam sleeper hit Salt N Pepper. The Nirbhaya rape last year also lent itself as a source of inspiration for filmmakers like Milan Bhowmick, who made Bengali film Nirbhoya, and Tammareddy Bharadwaja, director of Pratighatana, both centred on similar themes. The Marathi industry, which seems to have risen from its own ashes, too, boasted of films like Yellow, which told the story of Gauri Gadgil, a 23-year-old with Down’s syndrome who is a two-time silver medallist in swimming at the Special Olympics, and Ek Hazarchi Note, which was based on how an old woman’s life changes when she is handed a Rs 1000 note by a politician. Taan, Arundhati and Paraapar joined the list of films with strong women protagonists from Kolkata.
Last year, we celebrated a glorious 100 years of Indian cinema. Why then, even after a century, are we going on and on about these few successes that account for only about 5 per cent of the total number of films made by every industry in the country put together? “There was a time when we had powerhouse performers like Madhubala, Nutan, Rekha, Jaya Bhadhuri, Smita Patil and Suchitra Sen. There was also a time in the recent past where films like Maachis and Aandhi were made,” says Shoojit Sircar, director of films like Madras Cafe and Vicky Donor. “But somewhere down the line there has been a lag commercially. Films that revolved around men started doing commercially well.” Agrees Roshan Andrews, director of How Old Are You?, who says that this holds true for every industry. “Suddenly it all became about the hero’s story, the hero’s journey, the hero’s revenge and the hero’s love interest,” says Andrews, who is also known for his film Notebook, a coming-of-age story of three schoolgirls. “The women got reduced to playing the hero’s mother, sister or lover, and she existed solely to send him off to his battles, to feed him when he returned home or as an object of his desire.”
Soon, male stars started becoming the sole selling points of every film and before one could get a grasp of it, the business started soaring. A male star’s worth kept increasing depending on the number of hits he delivered at the box office. Even today, as actor-producer John Abraham put it, films are being developed as proposals around these superstars, with the story and supporting cast woven in as per the male star’s wishes. While actors have started claiming their stakes in the profits of their films, the heroines are paid far less than their male counterparts. Considered the highest paid female actor in Bollywood, Deepika Padukone, is rumoured to be paid close to Rs 9 crore per film, less than one-fifth of what the Khans take home with every project.
“It is unfair,” says Radhika Apte, an actor who has worked in Bengali, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and English films. “We give the equal amount of dates, put in equal amount of effort and even if we are playing stronger characters than the men, we are paid much lesser.” Parineeti Chopra, who is considered the next big thing in the industry and is known for playing meatier parts than her male co-stars, too, had openly expressed her displeasure in a recent TV interview on being paid much lesser than the men. Others like Padukone like to remain silent on the issue and put a positive spin on the situation. “It cannot be denied that heroes carry a lot more responsibility on their shoulders compared to us girls,” Padukone told THE WEEK. “If a film fails, they always walk away with more flak than the heroines do.” Chopra, too, sees this as an advantage citing that it creates a situation which allows female actors to take bigger risks in their career. “Fortunately or unfortunately, none of our heroines are in the league of the Khans. It is a fact that no woman in the industry is as saleable as a Salman Khan or Hrithik Roshan,” says Chopra. “This allows them to mould their careers the way they wish to. Deepika can today do a Finding Fanny and Piku alongside a Happy New Year today because of the same reason.” On the issue of lower pay, Chopra says the same situation prevails even in the west. “At the end of the day, we are in the entertainment business and its all about the money,” she says. “The day a Priyanka Chopra or a Vidya Balan gets a solo Rs 200 crore hit, they will have some solid say in the entire process. Ultimately, it all boils down to the economics.”
Another encouraging trend which is seen is that both the new breed of actors and the seniors who have been around are now more open in their approach to roles they play. Even while actors are sticking to the formula and flaunting their well-oiled six-pack abs, most of the women are bold in their choices and have no qualms in playing their age. Once the most sought-after heroine in Malayalam, Manju Warrier, too, chose to play a 36-year-old woman in her comeback film, despite being younger. “The age of the character was the central theme of the film, so I wouldn’t have done it if it bothered me,” says Warrier. “I just looked at it as a good story that is so relatable and deserved to be told. Everything else was secondary.” Amol Parchure, a noted Marathi film critic, cites the example of actor-filmmaker Mrinal Kulkarni. “For the first time in her career, Mrinal Kulkarni agreed to play mother to a grown-up girl in Yellow. Even in mainstream films like Pyaar Wali Love Story, Urmila Kanetkar who plays the female lead is not your usual lovey-dovey and demure girl. She is street smart, bold and fiercely independent,” he says. “Such moves reflect the changing perceptions in the actor’s mind about their image. The emphasis is now on meatier and more meaningful parts rather than screen space and image.”
Dixit’s turn as Begum Para in Dedh Ishqiya, a character riddled with strong homosexual undertones, is a classic example of this. Today’s leading ladies are not untouched virginal beauties. They are flawed, sometimes even manipulative; whatever be their age, they flaunt their sexualties and are unapolegetically independent and ambitious. Be it in Nupur Asthana’s Bewakoofiyan, Saket Choudhary’s Shaadi Ke Side Effects or Velraj’s Dhanush-starrer Velayilla Pattathari, the female leads Mayera (played by Sonam Kapoor), Trisha (played by Vidya Balan) and Shalini (played by Amala Paul) have real jobs that pay well and are more successful than their parteners.
However, Chopra, sees these as exceptions, calling it the new trick followed by filmmakers to make it seem like their women characters are strong. “Now, they all have jobs, but that’s the end of it. They give them a job and then make them do the same things–sing songs and be forgotten,” she says. She gives the example of Jacqueline Fernandes’s character in the Salman Khan hit Kick. “She plays a psychiatrist practising in Poland and then what?” asks Chopra. “It is an out and out Salman Khan film where she is nothing more than a prop.” Even the ever-dependable Balan gets reduced to a sorry caricature of an unreasonable nag in Choudhary’s film–which is deceptively titled Shaadi Ke Side Effects–who chooses to tell the story entirely from the husband’s perspective. Kareena Kapoor’s Avni in Rohit Shetty’s Singham Returns is a hairdresser and runs her own salon, but has little to do than shake a leg with Yo Yo Honey Singh and sing Aata Majhi Satakli in the film that is fully owned by Ajay Devgn. And, the biggest film of the year till now Happy New Year, too, does little justice to its female lead despite being helmed by the most successful female director in the industry. Mohini, the bar dancer played by Padukone, is shown repeatedly being at the receiving end of misogynistic remarks hurled by the hero Charlie (played by Shahrukh Khan) whom she falls for at first sight because he is fluent in “the English”.
Farah Khan, however, disagrees with this observation. “Deepika’s character is the moral core of the film. She is the one who takes charge and guides the men in the right direction,” she says. “None of my heroines have been victims, including Katrina’s character in Tees Maar Khan. Sushmita was a teacher [in Main Hoon Na], Deepika [in Om Shanti Om] was an actor in the 70s who had an extra-marital affair at that time. Even Mohini, like all the others, is a woman with a strong mind and a clear dream.” Her films may not revolve around the female lead, but just because women look pretty and wear good-looking clothes in them, it is unfair to slot them as mindless pretty things, she says. “I think people should be happy that a woman director is capable of bringing out films of such a huge scale and be successful at the box-office, too, rather than complaining that I don’t make films with strong female characters.”
The increase in the number of women technicians on the set is another heartening trend that is cutting across industries. Just like Farah, women directors down south, too, are proving their mettle. While Soundarya Rajnikanth helmed the country’s first film that used performance capture technique Kochaidayaan, for the first time in the history of Malayalam cinema, a female director, Anjali Menon, made the biggest blockbuster of the year, Bangalore Days. India’s official entry to the Oscars this year, Liar’s Dice, is also the work of a woman director, Geetu Mohandas.
A new breed of female producers are also ushering in new changes in favour of female-friendly content. “In Marathi films, earlier businessmen and hoteliers used to give their wives’ names as producers in the credits,” says Parchure. “But now there are genuine women producers, who not only invest money, but are creatively involved in the projects like Ashwini Darekar, who produced Porbazaar and Rege, and Poonam Shinde, whose first film Swami Public Ltd., has just released.” In Bollywood, too, while Dia Mirza produced Bobby Jasoos and Anil Kapoor’s younger daughter took charge of sister Sonam’s Khoobsurat, young actors like Anushka Sharma and Priyanka Chopra are also donning the producer’s hat. While Sharma’s first venture NH10, with her in the lead, has almost been wrapped up, Priyanka has started work on her maiden production Madhur Bhandarkar’s Madamji.
The audience, too, now comprises of a huge proportion of women, who spend their own money to watch films. “Why have films been male-centric? It is because it was men who spent money on them and hence made up the demand for them,” says Jyoti Kapur Das, creative head of Viacom18 Motion Pictures. “With more women being financially independent, they are capable of demanding that content be created around them, which in turn translates to more stories about women being told.”
The only formula that will ensure success in the times to come is good content, says Sidharth Roy Kapur, managing director, Disney UTV. “If you look at all the so called women-centric films that have done well this year, be it Queen, Mary Kom or Mardaani, there is a good story at its centre,” he says. “Good content is the only way to go, be it a man’s story or a woman’s.” Agrees Sircar, who is currently helming Piku, starring Padukone, Amitabh Bachchan and Irrfan Khan, and tells the story of a father-daughter relationship: “What is to be noted is that even among the women-centric films that came out this year, only those that have good content have been successful. This is what is heartening for filmmakers like me who do not want to subscribe to the set conventional style and want to tell realistic stories with believable characters.” The way ahead, says Sircar, is to “make sure that all characters in our films need are written in depth irrespective of the fact that it is a man or woman.” Directors like Andrews, Vikas Bahl and Imtiaz Ali seem to agree with this notion and vouch for the fact that their films were not designed to have female protagonists, the stories they wanted to tell demanded so.
At the beginning of this year, when Cate Blanchett walked away with the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, she thanked the audiences who went to see the film in her acceptance speech. “… Perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not,” she said. “Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.” Given that even the world’s biggest industry is just getting there in accepting films with female protagonists for what they are, at face value, the baby steps our films and filmmakers are taking, then, seem to be headed in the right direction.